Sunday, 5 March 2017

Symmetry on the western front in WWII

The bazooka vs panzer book whetted my appetite for some more WWII western front stuff (I still have that 20mm US army miniatures hanging around), so I picked up this new Osprey pitting German and US armoured infantry against each other.

There didn’t seem to be much difference between the Panzergrenadier and armoured infantryman when it comes to equipment and armoured fighting vehicle. There were some differences in replacement policy but those went for the armies as a whole and didn’t affect tactical and operational employment. Zaloga refers to a German preference for attacking mounted in their AFVs, but that is not what happens in the examples, so we don’t have any idea how that plays out.

Armoured divisions on both sides suffered when defending because they had a smaller infantry complement than an infantry division. And while the Americans had the luxury of being on the strategic offensive and thus only having to defend occasionally, the German army by the end of the war had to plug gaps with whatever came to hand, thus putting the armoured divisions at a disadvantage.

Apart from an offensive or defensive stance the determining factor in the outcome of this match up was that the Americans had much more stuff and were better at coordinating them. So while the Germans even struggled to get artillery support for their attacks, the Americans could pour artillery on enemy attacks, supplemented with air attacks when the weather was good.

My main problem with the book is that the combat narratives, and especially the last one, are not that clear and are badly supported by the maps. Especially in the last case it is hard to figure where the combat is taking place to St Vith and other places which are constantly referred to in the text. To sum up: I lost interest at some point.

Looking back it wasn’t written in the stars that the last four books I read would all be from the Combat and similar Duel series, but that’s how it played out. I’ve warmed to these series but my impression has been confirmed that the best of these are the ones that pit different styles of warfare against each other. With the armoured infantrymen and the World War I askaris, there is a less interesting dynamic than between Apache vs US cavalry and bazooka vs tank.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Asymmetry on the western front in WWII

After a couple of colonial contests, I was happy to shift to World War Two. I had been intreagued by the match up between the bazooka and German close defense systems for tanks.

Steven Zaloga is an authority on tank warfare, and his knowledge on this subject does not disappoint. The dynamic interaction between antitank tactics and close defense is explained well, debunking some myths on German mesh side armour. And there were some weirdly interesting solutions suggested, like the Vorsatz P.

It was all rather marginal though, as infantry weapons were responsible for only a small amount of tank losses, with tanks, aircraft and artillery doing the most damage. The main impact may have rather been to give infantry the idea that they wouldn’t have to face tanks empty handed. Also the bazooka was used far more often to take out enemy strong points than to fight tanks.

Zaloga then delves into one example where tanks and infantry were pretty evenly matched, during the Ardennes offensive in December 1944. As this fight took place in favourable circumstances for the infantry, with limited vision due to fog and houses, the infantry was able to get close to the tanks and on their weak side and rear armour.

Sadly, lacking in the account is the perspective of the German tankers and their attempts at close defense here. All in all the technical/tactical account of the start didn’t mesh too well with the combat narrative.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

And yet another forgotten colonial war

Even when I was young, we didn’t play Cowboys & Indians any more and Westerns have declined as a movie theme. But despite the relative neglect, the Indian wars remain a fascinating colonial conflict.

By the time the U.S. army took on the Apache tribes in the middle of the 19th century, the issue was no longer in doubt. The demographic and industrial weight of the US totally overshadowed that of the hunting and farming Apache who number in the tens of thousands.

This was a war of relatively small battles, neither side bringing more than several hundred combatants to the fight. However, each Apache killed had long term consequences for the survival of his tribe, while there was a steady flow of new recruits for the cavalry.  At the same time, expanding settlement reduced the hunting grounds on which the Apache depended, thus forcing them into raiding.

Nevertheless, the struggle was a long and bitter one, which could only be brought to an end by employing Apache versus Apache. This although the cavalry itself made significant strides in its counter guerilla capabilities. Equipment and tactics were adapted to the climate and Apache warrior society.

Likewise the Apache adapted to the western world, improving their weaponry, and finding ways to sabotage telegraph communications. They also used their superior knowledge of the terrain to move and live undetected.

The only way to really get at them was to use scouts from rival tribes. There was little sense of common cause between these tribes and for many warriors the opportunity to stick to their warrior lifestyle, plus a gun and free meals, was too good to be missed.

McLachlan does an excellent job using first hand accounts from both sides to illustrate the challenges that both sides faced and how the social-political dynamics of the Apache and white settler society made conflict inevitable. The narrative flows well, the analysis is crisp and the illustrations fit the narrative. Probably the best Osprey book that I’ve read on ‘non-western‘ armies.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Another forgotten colonial war

Got a bit frustrated with my lack of reading lately and so decided to take on some lighter stuff, and Ospreys have proven excellent in that regard. Easy to pick up and lay down on the commute.

First off was King’s African Rifles vs Schutztruppe, continuing the theme of forgotten colonial wars. Not a middle of the military history road subject. First of all it deals with an African side show in World War I, when troops from British colonies tried to conquer the German colonies. And secondly, it prominently features the African soldiers fighting the war.

And compared to most Osprey books, there is more information on the non-western protagonists. It is made clear that in the British units, with fewer white NCOs, more responsibility devolved on the black NCOs especially when the (always white) officers became casualties.

And the author very cautiously treads the subject whether having more European NCOs was better for battlefield performance. There are even a few passages from the memoires of black participants.

On the other hand, in the operational narrative, the perspective of the black soldiers fades into the background. The prime actors there are the natural environment dictating the tactical and strategic decisions made by white officers. And you can still wonder how the askaris felt about fighting a colonial war.

On all the other elements the book score above average. It does a good job of explaining the challenges of bush warfare in southeastern Africa and the differences in British and German policies towards war in Africa. Also, the operational narrative is clear and highlights the most important factors which are brought together in the final analysis. Special kudos for the illustrations, which are very well integrated into the narrative, reinforcing it with examples.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Forgotten colonial wars don't go away

This is a very nice book on a forgotten colonial war that the Netherlands started without good reason and only ended with the arrival of a new colonial power, Japan, in 1942.*

From the first unsuccessful invasion in 1873, through the bitter decades of guerilla warfare to the anticlimax in 1942, Dutch colonial administrators and military struggled to bring an end to the costly occupation of a region that just would not submit, even when all hope seemed gone.

As the Dutch brought more power to bear, the resistance dwindled from a full fledged army defending the sultanate to desperate attacks on individual soldiers and bureaucrats. And as the Dutch sent their columns deeper into the hinterland, all of Aceh was marked with destroyed villages and hasty graves for freedom fighters and their pursuers.

The coming of the Japanese didn’t improve the lives of the inhabitants of Aceh, nor did their struggle end with Indonesian independence. And even though peace has reigned since almost a decade, Aceh is still a poor and neglected part of Indonesia.

Stolwijk, who lived in Aceh for 18 months between 2009 and 2015, gives a sympathetic view of a society trying to overcome the painful present, while keeping alive the ghosts from the past. His anecdotes of interactions with former guerillas and collaborators, students and officials (who seem genuinely pleased that somebody takes an interest in the history of their building or train line) both provide comic relief and perspective.

*full disclosure: I’ve played a few games of football with the author and I think he’s a nice guy.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Nazi women and Nazi Wives

Fascinating book. Most of the women in this book were highly dedicated to Hitler and his ideas. Magda Goebbels married the 'next best'. They paid a high price for their dedication after the war: destitution, imprisonment, even life.* Yet, several of them defended the Third Reich onto their dying bed.

The book gives a peek behind the scenes of the Nazi party. The stories of Geli Raubal, Hitler's favourite niece, and Carin Göring, the Swedish aristocrat that left her husband for Hermann, provide insight to the workings and social sphere of Hitler's entourage in the Kampfzeit, ie before the Nazis came to power.

It shows that the Nazis were human. Göring was a true romantic, whilst Goebbels was an adulterer with a penchant for adoration and self doubt. Even Hitler felt a moral obligation to take care of Eva Braun after suicide attempts, and although he ordered her to stay out of sight when foreign dignitaries visited the Berghof.

None of these women held any personal power. Women were considered unfit for the political sphere in Nazi ideology. Despite the huge services rendered for the party by benefactresses in the Kampfzeit, their opinions counted for little. Even the staunch Nazi organiser Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, in charge of the party (and later state) women's organisations, never actually got to talk to Hitler.

So all influence these women had was through their men. Whilst Emmy Göring and Henriette von Schirach slowly faded into the background as the influence of their husbands waned, Eva Braun slowly increased her hold on Hitler's private life.

Is there a lesson in these stories?

* That's not saying it wasn't just or deserved or both.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

British Invasion

A colleague of mine gave me this interesting little book. When he read my Waterloo book he revealed that he’d done a documentary in 2011 on the recovery of the bones of a British soldier in the Dutch dunes near Groote Keeten.

The soldier had died on the 27th of August 1799, during the landing of a British invasion force on the Dutch coast. The intention was to raise the Dutch  against their French allies and for the previous sovereign, Stadtholder William V of Orange. When the French had conquered the Dutch Republic in 1795 they installed a satellite government of Dutch revolutionaries.

Although the British invasion force managed to gain the Dutch fleet base (and fleet) at Den Helder and the city of Alkmaar, they were unable to make more headway towards Amsterdam, even after being reinforced by a Russian expeditionary force. Neither had Orangist sympathisers made much of a showing. Late in the year, the British and Russians reembarked, leaving little trace.

The discovery of the remains of the British soldier lead to an archeological dig at the site. The book describes the research, based on the finds at the site linked to historical evidence.

There’s the estimates of length and age based on the skeleton, the analysis of the wood and metals of a musket, some cloth and buttons which all go some way to identifying it as the remains of a soldier of the Coldstream Guards.

A more precise identification was not possible, although based on letters and official records, the search could be narrowed down to a handful of individuals who had died on the 27th of August.

In 2012 the remains were returned to the Coldstream Guards for interment in Britain.

Friday, 27 January 2017

From the Congo to Nova Zembla. A small step

I referred to this beautiful book last Sunday. A year's worth of a German geographical magazine.

Not only is is 145 years old, it has the most beautiful maps. The publisher, Justus Perthes from the German city of Gotha, had a golden reputation for its map making. I also have an atlas of the classical world from these guys. Stunning work.

Not only does it have a piece on Livingstone's research into the origins of the Nile, it also has a lot of stuff on a polar exhibition to Nova Zembla. And this is where a legendary chapter in Dutch history comes to pass. Because what the polar expedition found was an old hut, known in Dutch as Het Behouden Huys, in which a group of Dutch sailors survived an arctic winter.

Here's the 1872 map, showing the location of the hut near the lowest cape on the eastern coast.

In 1596 an expedition led by captains Barentsz (yes, the sea is named after him) and Heemskerck tried to find a way to the East Indies by the north cape. It was hoped that in this way, the Spanish and Portuguese, who claimed the Indian Ocean and the Pacific as their monopolies, could be avoided.

The expedition failed, getting stuck in the polar ice. But the account of their survival during the polar winter, including fights with bears, was widely read and still forms one of the seminal elements of Dutch pride in their Golden Age. The magazine included a couple of classic prints out of the account.

With the north route proven to be unusable, Dutch traders forced more resources into breaking into the Indian Ocean, which lead to the foundation of the Dutch East India Company and a colonial empire that lasted for almost 350 years.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Lovely sculptures

Went to a great exhibition on sculpture this Saturday, charting its development from the mid 19th century till today. The main theme was how sculpture broke free from copying classical and renaissance artists, to new forms and themes. Very well done.

Ecce Puer (See the child) by Medardo Rosso, 1906.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1937. Wonderfully 3D effect done with canvas

Beatifully stylised Bird Swallowing A Fish by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1914.

This piece, Der Rächer by Ernst Barlach from October 1914 is a good reminder that Germans at that time didn't see themselves as evil invaders but as righteous avengers. The avenger is holding a saex, an ancient Germanic sword type. I feel there's an uncanny resemblance between the face and that of then Emperor Wilhelm II.

Barlach's enthusiasm for the war quickly wore off on the front and he returned as a pacifist. His post war work includes many commemorative signs at war cemeteries. His work was later labeled as Entartete Kunst by the Nazis. Just like Käthe Kollwitz, who lost her son in the Great War. This is her Turm der Mutter from 1937.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Wow. Just wow

I told you two weeks ago, that my Secret Satan had been very kind and scarily knowledgeable about my wishes. The third package arrived a week ago, but since I wasn't home I had to pick it up at a post office. To which I only came around yesterday.

After all the goodness that had been my share already, I was surprised at the size of the package, although the weight was bearable.Arriving home I left it to unpack my groceries and the set upon the box with a knife.

The packing foam was familiar, but what it uncovered was frankly breathtaking. First, up popped an expansion for Blood Rage, so my thought was that the all-knowing Satan had picked up my interest in the game and wanted to tease me. Colour my surprise as more expansions followed, and finally, the basic game.

That had me stunned, because this was shaping up as no ordinary gift and I had no clue why Satan would have reason to reward me so richly.

Still unbelieving I tried to make sure that there was nothing else hidden in the box before I stashed it away. And colour my surprise several shades deeper as another package turned up, carrying Dungeon Crawl Classic RPG plus an extra adventure, as well as the rule book for Congo, a miniatures game by the same people that brought us Muskets & Tomahawks and Saga.

Satan is keenly aware of my interest in slavery and will have noticed when I expressed my doubts about playing a game with slave traders and which depicts the opening up of the Congo to the merciless exploitation of its people by the Belgian king Leopold as described in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read the book last summer on the train to London, as Satan seems to recollect.

Also, I have recently been gifted with a copy from a German geographical magazine from 1872, with an account of Livingstone's research into the origins of the Nile. It has me salivating. Satan must be roaring with laughter putting this ethical dilemma before me.

And I hadn't even reach the bottom yet. Satan's final revenge. After all he goodness, there was this...

Yes, that is Knizia's Modern Art. A game which I revile and abhor. So much so that I had given it away having never played it. Okay, so I won a game recently; that doesn't make me like it! Apparently there's no getting rid of this steaming turd of a game. Perhaps giving it away is being too nice. Maybe stronger measures are called for...

There are no words to express my appreciation to Satan for going the length he did to spy on me to bring me such a generous package. I am absolutely overwhelmed by it.